Saturday, March 25, 2017

What Kind of Syntactician Are You?

Syntacticians are not a uniform bunch. There are different different ways of looking and theory and data that define them. Here is a sample of what is out there. These may not be the most appropriate or interesting of names. If you have alternative names for the categories, please let me know. Of course, a person's personality might be composed of several of these basic types. This categorization is not meant to be offensive. All of these categories of people are immensely valuable, in my opinion.
1. The Skimmer
The skimmer looks at lots of languages (dozens) to address some theoretical point or to formulate a universal principle. They enjoy reading grammars and reading obscure papers on less studied languages. They are not so interested in giving an in-depth description of a particular language, although they might indulge in this from time to time. What is more important is to try to understand the nature of UG from the point of view of massive cross-linguistic comparison. The skimmer should not be confused with a typologist, who does not believe in generative syntax, and is often hostile towards it.

2. The Theoretician
The theoretician starts from some clear set of assumptions and tries to give an original analysis in formal terms of some relatively well known phenomena (e.g., that-trace effects). Usually the theoretician does not push forward empirical understanding, but his/her works often sets the stage for others who will.

3. The Language Specialist
The language specialist can often be seen huddling at conferences with like minded people all working on the same language or the same small group of languages. They have highly specialized
and detailed knowledge of their language. They often use terms that are not understood outside their specialization. Their theoretical contributions attempt to make sense of the intricate and mysterious properties of their language.

4. The English Syntactician
The English syntactician has a voluminous memory, knowing every possible counter-example to theoretical generalizations in English. They can also cite by date and title all the articles that have appeared in the early volumes of Linguistic Inquiry. Their golden grail is to discover some unknown and theoretically interesting fact about English (these are called "cool facts").

5. The Syntax/Semantic Interface Specialist
This type of syntactician knows quite a bit of semantics. They have read all the classical texts and have mastered a formal semantics framework. To the lay person, they might be confused for a semanticist. But their work turns toward the syntactic, showing how synactic and semantic principles
interact or how to account for semantic phenomena using a sophisticated syntactic framework.

6. The King/Queen of Construction
The King/Queen have built their career on a single construction (or closely related set of constructions).
They wrote their thesis on that topic, and most of their current work is also on that topic. They serve as a kind of clearinghouse or point person for the field, writing periodic handbook articles, and giving invited talks on their construction.

7. The Experimentalist
This is a new breed, which I may not be in a good position to characterize well. Their work approaches traditional syntactic question from an experimental perspective, meaning lab work and/or Mechanical Turk survey work. The experimentalist does not push forward theoretical or empirical understanding, but helps us to  understand the status of various linguistic generalizations and principles that already exist.

1 comment:

  1. When I first entered grad school I was definitely of the Theorist bent (my first qualifying paper was on deriving the Coordinate Structure Constraint and coordination of like categories constraint from considerations of Chomsky's labeling algorithm), and I was very much on track to be an English Syntactician (I still love a good "cool fact"). It wasn't long until I stumbled on Persian and the Iranian languages, and now I find that I'm much better described these days by your Language Specialist category, as well as the Syntax/Semantic Interface Specialist.


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